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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Black holes at the heart of FOI

Australian Freedom of Information aficionados, familiar with the definitional issues argued up hill and down dale and the absolute nature of the cabinet document exemption in our laws, may know that the UK doesn't have such a specific provision in the FOI Act, although just about everything of this nature is caught by a policy document exemption that at least requires consideration of the public interest. The Government has been moving in the direction of adding a cabinet document exemption to the law but has now backed off.

As Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information writes in The Independent
The exemption would have carved out a black hole at the heart of the FOI Act. The chances of obtaining cabinet or cabinet committee minutes are already slim. A ministerial veto has twice been used to block their release. But the proposed exemption would also have applied to papers circulated to any cabinet committee.
Ministers wanting to keep their secrets safe could flash them in front of a cabinet committee, instantly prohibiting public access for 20 years. A new top layer of secrecy beyond the Act's reach would have been created.
The old "trolley technique" wouldn't seem to be available anywhere here these days, but I'm afraid we've got our share of black holes. Arguments for making the cabinet document and other absolute exemptions subject to a public interest test have fallen on deaf ears everywhere to date. So have things like following the UK example of extending FOI to the Parliament- everywhere except Tasmania, that is.

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